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From the Journal & Courier

LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Ryan Leaf’s free fall from a top NFL draft pick to a burglar in search of the next high is legendary.

Leaf freely tells the tale, the good and the bad, during speaking engagements throughout the country.

Leaf, the second overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft after Indianapolis Colts’ Peyton Manning, visited Lafayette to share his story of drug addiction.

A panel of community leaders and experts joined Leaf to discuss how they were addressing the issues related to addiction and recovery.

Leaf’s battle with addiction and redemption in the early 2000s transcended the sports pages and became the focus of an ESPN “E:60” feature.

This week’s event was hosted by Meridian Health Services and Meridian’s Addiction and Recovery Center at The Courtyard by Marriott, Lafayette, Wednesday.

The panelists included were Michael Budd, United Way of Greater Lafayette and Tippecanoe County; Sean Persin, Tippecanoe County Circuit Court Judge; Indiana State Rep. Chris Campbell, District 26; West Lafayette Chief of Police Troy Harris; Jim Stone, a previous Meridian Home with Hope board member; Cheri Pruitt, Tippecanoe Adult Probation officer; and Allison Miner, with Meridian Health Services Home with Hope.

Panelists speak during a Meridian Community Health speaker series event, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021 in Lafayette.

Before all of the scandals that Leaf had to deal with throughout his life, he was seen as a trailblazing Montanan. During his college career, he led Washington State University to the Rose Bowl and was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.

The only person picked higher than Leaf in the 1998 NFL draft was Peyton Manning, chosen first overall to the Indianapolis Colts. He was living the life.

“Up to that point, I really hadn’t failed. Now I failed a lot, I just really hadn’t failed in a large and public scene. There were many times I stumbled and fell, and I needed support and help from people. But I hadn’t recognized that,” said Leaf.

Ironically, this lack of failure led to Leaf’s fall from grace within the NFL.

Tippecanoe Circuit Judge Sean Persin speaks on a panel during a Meridian Community Health speaker series event, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021 in Lafayette.

After his third game and one of his worse performances in the league at the time, Leaf was in the locker filled with emotion when a camera guy accidentally bumped his head with the camera, he recalled.

Leaf began to scold the man. A reporter caught this interaction and added the encounter to his report. The following week, Leaf meet with the reporter and began to scream at the man. The now-infamous moment was caught on video and started Leaf’s free fall in the NFL.

“Life is unfair sometimes. It’s about how you deal with (those moments) that matters, and I dealt with it like sh**. And what would happen is the end of my football career. I would play five years in the NFL, which is double the length of an average career. But nothing positive happened after that moment because of how I dealt with it,” said Leaf.

A way to get rid of the pain’

After leaving the NFL, Leaf said, he fell into a deep depression and began looking for a way to get rid of the pain. That’s when he was introduced to Vicodin at a party. Although he had taken Vicodin throughout his career, this was the first time he took them to deal with the mental pain.

“I usually took them after surgeries, and when I was done and started to rehab and get back to compete, I never thought about them again. I knew it worked; it took away my physical pain,” said Leaf. They’re called that for a reason. They are pain killers. That’s the best definition you could give these types of drugs. And when he gave me those pills that night, that would be the first time I ever took them for my emotional pain, and it worked. I walked in and out of those parties and I didn’t feel any of that judgment, any of the fear, any of that least then. I didn’t feel better, I just didn’t feel anything.”

He soon became addicted to the drug as a way to fight off the mental illness Leaf was battling. He eventually lost everything – going from living in the enviable hills of southern California to moving back home with his mom and dad.

Unable to afford the drugs he desired and occupied the thoughts in his head, Leaf began entering people’s homes and stealing drugs out of their medicine cabinets, resulting in jail time for his crimes.

“I victimized my entire hometown until the end. I was on the outskirts of town, knocking down doors and if no one was home, I would let myself in if the door was unlocked. So, I became a burglar. I’m not a very good criminal. I was found out very quickly,” said Leaf.

Ryan Leaf, former NFL quarterback, speaks during a Meridian Community Health speaker series event, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021 in Lafayette.

While in jail, Leaf began turning his life around, specifically learning how to ask for help. And a few months after he was released from jail, Leaf visited a rehab facility and began finding the help he needed.

Leaf has since dedicated his life to spreading the word of drug addiction, helping those who may not know how to ask for help, something he could not do himself.